Dec 23, 2021
Can one really learn to play an instrument over Zoom? What about attending a klezmer dance party solo, trying to follow steps that are meant to be danced in pairs or in a round? For almost two years, the Yiddish and klezmer festival worlds have moved their programming online. Some Yiddishists doubted whether events they loyally attended for years could translate to a screen — whether the experience would feel as immersive in what researcher Rivke Margolis calls digital Yiddishland.
As a brand-new KlezKanada attendee, I had no in-person experience for comparison when I logged on in August 2020 from the comfort of my bedroom desk. The organizers did a superb job, demonstrating a commitment to inclusivity and accessibility, and I thoroughly enjoyed the events. At the start of the festival, musician Sarah Larsson started a WhatsApp group chat, aptly named KlezCuties, into which there flocked a few dozen young-ish folks attending that year’s festival remotely. We used the chat to share our favorite not-to-be-missed sessions, post lost links, plan collaborations, and kvell and kvetch about festival experience, just as we would have done in the hallways and over dinner if the event were held in person. (What’s a Zoom link paste if not telling a friend what classroom their workshop was just moved to?) The group chat enhanced our learning and created a more connected digital festival experience.
Yet, when Yiddish New York came around a few months later in December 2020, I felt a pang of nostalgia for the previous years’ in-person space I’d experienced, realizing how much I missed the people I’d met there and the thrilling times we’d shared. Above all, it was the social aspects of these festivals, not the formal workshop instruction, that brought out my and other past attendees’ deepest longings – the way that people in shared spaces, largely outside of planned programming, will congregate informally, build spontaneous connections, forge lasting relationships, and create unforgettable memories. Many of us fondly recalled the spaces we would miss: the hallways where we found out how each other’s classes were going; the lobby of the 14th St. Y where even the most casual jam sessions sounded incredible and would lead to new band formations; the local eats in the neighborhood where we dined between daytime and evening sessions. However, my experiences at the 2020 digital Yiddish New York showed me that it was not the physical encounters that made those moments possible. It was the structured spaces that facilitated opportunities for connection — which I and many others found a way to replicate online.
I was quickly immersed in the online version of Yiddish New York. It was well-curated with top-notch programming, as always, though it was in many ways a different experience altogether. By the end of 2020 – after almost a year of attending online events — I was comfortable navigating these digital landscapes, easily hopping between Zoom rooms from the comfort of my big cushioned chair without running up and down hallways on the wrong floor of the Y because of a last-minute room change.
Most importantly, the 40+ member group chat I convened—this one called YNY Yentes, inspired by KlezCuties— became a lifeline to feel like I was having a seamless social experience between individual Zoom sessions. On more than one occasion, we used the chat to convince a quorum of people to show up to the Yiddish-speaking breakout room of the “Shmooze hour.” A constant stream of messages flooded the chat during evening programming, when we would comment on the fabulousness of the performers and give our hot takes on what was to come. While the main performances played on my laptop, keeping up with a half-dozen simultaneous conversation threads on my phone was as good as having my friends all sitting next to me in a row of seats of a performance hall, without any of the neck craning or having to tell anyone to shush.Cooperative overlapping at its finest! Besides, how else could the Yiddish world be privy to In geveb editor Sandra Chiritescu and Yiddish musician, cantor, and cabaret host Rachel Weston’s excellent bitmoji game? We could always count on them to come through with the perfect reaction via their digital avatars.
And in case you thought it was only Millennials and Zoomers taking up these new modes of community building, veteran Yiddish dance teacher Steve Weintraub opened his Zoom room for the duration of the festival to be a stand-in for the YNY lobby. Sandra and I used it to host a watch party for one of the feature films from the wonderful lineup of the YNY Film Festival, getting the word out through “official” channels like the Zoom chat of the film’s Q&A session (which, yes, we attended before watching the film, and it turned out we weren’t the only ones) but also our beloved group chat.
Others also carved out intentional spaces for social connection, project support, and collaboration outside of official festival programming. Musicians Uri Schreter and Isabel Frey gathered fellow recipients of YNY’s scholarship for emerging artists and scholars for informal social hours. We met in breakout rooms according to our Yiddish cultural discipline, such as instrumental music, vocal music, theater, Yiddish language, and research.
Many other Yiddish events that used to be local community affairs turned online to continue being able to meet when the pandemic hit. There are now enough weekly offerings that I could fill my schedule with several Yiddish events a day (the battle between love for Yiddishkayt and Zoom burnout is too real). It was for that reason I created the Facebook group Events IN Yiddish a week or so into the pandemic, in which Yiddish organizers from around the world continue to post about their events and classes. That group is another structure that makes possible information sharing, and therefore connection to Yiddish, in an easily accessible format.
Also at the beginning of the pandemic, I joined the Yid Vid Club, started by Yiddish New York and KlezKanada attendee Rachel Beck, for watching old Yiddish movies with English subtitles together. While we didn’t get through the whole trove of Yiddish movies accessible online, for the first few months of the pandemic we met regularly to watch many Yiddish films over Zoom. The movies were never the main point, though. Yiddish brings us together as we continue to check in about each other’s goings on and support each other through ups and downs of life. I would never have become so close to these people spread literally coast to coast without the turn towards virtual social spaces.
The YNY Yentes group chat formed last December remains the most active Yiddish-related communication channel I am a part of, probably because it was never restricted to political organizing, creative work, or socializing. It encompasses all those things. In this informal space, we schedule watch parties of pre-recorded klezmer concerts and Yiddish films, find people with whom to text-schmooze in real-time during live events, and promote each other’s new music releases, published articles, press, performances, and workshop opportunities. We ask questions, get advice, find project collaborators, and use the group chat to directly support our creative and learning endeavors. I have given Yiddish pronunciation tips on somebody’s techno recording and put my poetry writing skills to use writing Yiddish lyrics on someone else’s song-writing project.
This thread from May 2021, shared with the permission of all participants, perfectly captures how Yiddishists exchange informational tidbits, media, and the finer points of klezmer history.
Meanwhile, a group of Yiddish teachers, grad students, writers, klezmer musicians, artists, and independent freelancers have formed a perpetually-open Zoom room and an accompanying Yiddish-speaking group chat to announce when someone wants company to co-work on mute on their respective projects. Tamara Gleason-Friedberg, organizer of Yiddish House London, another friend I met online during the pandemic when I started attending non-local Yiddish events, introduced me to that group. I even got feedback on writing this very article from my co-conspirators in the YNY Yentes group chat, while sitting on Zoom in the co-working room with some of them. It means a lot to me, as a non-academic without access to institutional mentorship like in a student-professor relationship, to be connected to these informal networks of support. People have been extremely generous with their time and willingness to share knowledge about what kinds of Yiddish resources exist and how to access them.
We are much more connected now, almost daily for some, than when we would only see each other at in-person festivals. The emails and Facebook messages we used to send to keep in touch are not the same as real-time virtual spaces. Yiddish festivals and classes moving online gave us a reason to begin communicating in this format, then created the unintended side effect of us keeping in touch with each other in this multifaceted Yiddishist community all year long. Thanks to these virtual meeting spaces–group chats and subsequent Zoom hangouts–we have contributed to building thriving transnational Yiddish community.
Outside the klezmer and Yiddish worlds, disabled academics, activists and community members have pioneered robust online conferences and social spaces, acknowledging that virtual spaces are also the “real world”, long before the pandemic brought this into perspective for everyone else. Virtual events, when done well, increase access for all kinds of people to attend who could never make it in person because of prohibitive travel costs or lack of disability accommodations. Inability to take time off work or arrange childcare are also issues, ones that even online events need to take into consideration. Further, online communities have long been a way for people to connect over shared niche interests and marginalized identities.
Now, the proliferation of online Yiddish events and classes, some of which I organize with Rad Yiddish and Queer Yiddishkayt, has further increased accessibility in all these ways, including for those who don’t live somewhere with much of a Yiddish-speaking population, and for queer and trans Yiddishists. It’s a well-known fact that us queer folks have participated in large numbers at Yiddish summer programs and klezmer festivals for many decades, which In geveb contributor Alicia Svigalis recently recapped, but meeting online regularly as queer Yiddishists has opened up even more possibilities for creating affirming Yiddish culture.
As a disabled low-income Yiddishist, I have personally found the experience of online festivals and language programs to be so much more accessible than the pre-pandemic in-person events. Some Yiddish summer programs went hybrid this past summer while others remained fully online. Yiddish New York will be back for another mostly-virtual festival, but will livestream in-person concerts, a continuation of a model they tried out at last year’s festival. It’s important that even once the pandemic eases and in-person gatherings become safe again, quality online programming continues to be well-planned and offered alongside in-person events, whether the participants are local or international. I hope that when it’s safe to gather again in person, hybrid events are the new standard so that we are including as many people from our communities as possible in Yiddish culture and study, setting important precedents for the future of international Yiddish language and cultural programming.
But hours in Zoom workshops don’t necessarily build a sense of community, whether at a Yiddish festival or an academic program, if there’s suddenly no one with whom to chat when the Zoom room closes. If moving through physical hallways, taking field trips, sharing dorms, and sharing meals are the extracurricular infrastructure necessary for in-person community-building, online Yiddish programs and festivals must give as much thought to this vital aspect of their programming.
Yiddish cultural and academic organizations must provide virtual infrastructure for participant-led spaces to connect digitally outside of official programming. Without institutional support, individuals will continue informally connecting outside of programs, to be sure. I’ve witnessed summer program students starting leyenkrayzn and shmueskrayzn, meeting weekly long after the end of their programs. I myself have maintained contact with a few weekly Yiddish language practice buddies, some of whom I met at my first summer at YIVO in 2018. But that’s not going to be inclusive of every participant without more wide-reaching and structured ways for people to plug in. During the pandemic, some Yiddish institutions have begun offering informal shmues hours to their students to try to replicate that sense of community. Not everyone comes, but for those who do, these opportunities to socialize outside of class are truly meaningful. These are models organizations should build on.
Attention to an inclusive, outreach-oriented virtual infrastructure for informal Yiddishist community is particularly urgent as thousands more newbie Yiddishists are looking to plug into Yiddish opportunities after the recently-dropped Yiddish Duolingo app. There may be dozens of iterations of Facebook groups like Learn Yiddish (that one boasting more than 6,000 members) but I didn’t know they existed until I was plugged in to the Yiddish svive. How are we reaching the still-disenfranchised would-be Yiddishists? I urge all of us active in digital Yiddishland to make sure they find a sense of community in this sea of online options and to make sure they know how to find us in the first place — that we remain accessible, and invite them to our (virtual) tables.